A professional pollster put in the field a survey to gauge the interest of a sales tax increase here. Photo by Steve Whitmore

City officials next Wednesday are poised to present the results of a professional survey costing just under $25,000 designed to gauge public interest in a citywide sales tax hike conducted by a pollster used during the successful utility users tax vote last year.

The sales tax increase for So Pas has to be placed on the ballot in either November or March 2020 to have any significant effect on the city’s budget deficit. The city also has to declare a fiscal emergency to get the increase on the ballot.

The survey – conducted by consultant True North Research, which also did a successful survey for the city last year that dealt with city services and the utility users tax – was launched last month and focused on the potential sales tax ballot measure.

The poll was completed by the end of May and preliminary results have been made available to city officials, according to the language in the contract with True North. However, those preliminary results have not be publicly released or presented to the City Council.

“Given the city’s urgency to complete the study, we recommend a start date in the last week of March, which would allow us to provide initial survey results to the city in late April/early May, and have the entire study complete by the end of May,” states the contract dated March 11 that was signed by City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe.

The council was not involved in the issuance of the poll because DeWolfe has the authority to expend public funds up to $25,000 without council approval or public discussion.

The survey, which had more than 600 respondents in early May, has already been criticized by some residents who say spending $24,950 for a public opinion poll when the city is facing a more than $1 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year is irresponsible. They also say that the poll leads the respondent to support a sales tax increase.

“It has elements of a push poll,” So Pas resident Chris Bray said in an email to The Review. “A portion of the questions are leading — they’re meant to drive you to a conclusion, not to ask you about your conclusions.”

One way to raise money to combat the deficit, though, is through a ¾ of a cent sales tax increase just for South Pasadena. The combined sales tax for Los Angeles County and the state is 9.5 percent. The So Pas hike would be on top of that figure, according to city officials.

DeWolfe defends the poll as being a critical component in the decision to move forward on the sales tax hike.

“City staff has been actively seeking community input for the past several months on a variety of ideas to balance the city budget, including revenue enhancements and budget cuts,” DeWolfe said in an earlier email to The Review. “We conducted seven community meetings and collected more than 350 responses to our online survey. One of the most popular options among the revenue enhancements was a ¾ of a cent sales tax increase, favored by about 65 percent of respondents. Residents were particularly supportive when presented with the likelihood that L.A. County would enact a similar tax hike to supplement the county budget, leaving South Pasadena without a mechanism for additional local funds. Based on that feedback, we moved forward with a professional poll to test the results of our informal study. The cost of the study is a relatively small investment to potentially realize a $1.5 million annual revenue source that would enable the city to continue providing the high level of local services that our residents support.”

Bray stands on the opposite end of the spectrum, not only disagreeing with DeWolfe, but indicating the city is not listening to residents at all.

“The most striking thing about this poll is that it only mentions the same alternatives that the city had already offered before they held that series of meetings to supposedly listen to the community,” Bray said. “Many people offered many ideas about other ways the city could raise money. All of those ideas died where they were born — they sank and vanished the moment citizens mentioned them to the city. I don’t see any evidence at all that anyone from the city listened to anyone outside City Hall at all. Somehow we have a great city, excellent and responsive city services, and a closed culture at the top of the city government. I really don’t understand it. Talking to our City Council is like talking to a wall.” Bray is not alone in his criticism, with many other residents concerned about the issuance of such a poll.

However, other city officials agree with DeWolfe, saying it would be irresponsible not to gauge the public’s opinion on the issue before placing it before the voters.

“The poll is being conducted specifically to measure support for the additional sales tax,” John Pope, So Pas public information officer, said in an earlier email to The Review. “It would be irresponsible of any city to move forward with the expense of a ballot measure without conducting a scientifically sound poll that measured community support for that ballot measure.”

Although DeWolfe has been characterizing the city’s budget predicament as “modest” when compared to other cities, she appears recently to be pushing for the fiscal emergency declaration to pave the way for the ballot measure. The measure could pass with a simple majority of over 50 percent and does not require a two-third vote.

“The city would have to declare a fiscal emergency to place the measure on the November ballot,” Pope said. “That is a decision that will be made by the City Council, pending the poll results.”

Pope added that such a declaration would not necessarily negatively affect the city’s credit or bond rating. In fact, it could help it, Pope said.

“The declaration by itself is not likely to affect the city’s credit standing since it is being done in the service of an additional revenue source,” Pope said. “The rating agencies take into account many factors, including a city’s long-term financial stability. Should the tax measure succeed, it may improve the city’s bond rating.”

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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